To many, it’s nothing more than a red cup, and any outrage over Starbucks’ decision to streamline the seasonal design of its paper cup is contrived or just plain silly.

This year’s plain red cup is less overtly “Christmassy” than previous iterations. But not only do some evangelical Christians believe the cup signifies something more, retail experts and others say the cup’s role in this year’s edition of the so-called “War on Christmas” raises important questions on the changing demographics of the American shopper, and how and when retailers should respond — or not.

Simon Malls might have learned its own lesson in not disturbing the Christmas peace when it rolled out a new, sleek, almost futuristic Christmas display a few weeks ago at six of its 200 properties. Children could still sit on Santa’s lap as their parents once did. But gone were the elves, trees and other visual cues heralding traditional Christmas, replaced by a new, all-white faux-glacier structure that looked more like it came from the workshop of French designer Philippe Starck than the North Pole.

Some customers balked; social media and local TV stations jumped on it; boycotts were invoked, and within days the largest mall owner in the U.S. retreated. “It was our intention to experiment with delivering a modern, interactive experience for the family,” David Contis, president of Simon Malls, said in a statement. “After listening to customer feedback, we immediately decided to reinstall our existing Christmas décor and hope our customers will join us in celebrating the Christmas season.”

That Contis uttered the word “Christmas” — and not “holiday” — highlighted the true meaning of this tussle. While America grows more diverse culturally and religiously, and young America grows more agnostic, businesses are struggling with the question of whether it’s possible to communicate a single, homogenous message — especially at this time of year.

Don’t look for these kinds of cultural clashes in the retail space to dissipate anytime soon. “The cynical side of me believes that if this continues, retailers are going to be forced to choose sides,” says Deborah Small, Wharton professor of marketing. “Brands are going to have to align with identities and values even more so. Some do, in the way that Ben & Jerry’s is a liberal brand, and Chick-fil-A is conservative, and we might see more and more of that.”

“We go to Starbucks not just because we like the coffee. The product is minuscule relative to the brand and the fit between the brand ideals and the customer.” –Deborah Small

After all, she adds, that’s what brands are: “We go to Starbucks not just because we like the coffee. The product is minuscule relative to the brand and the fit between the brand ideals and the customer,” Small notes. “So being appealing universally is tough when you have these sorts of divides, these wars if you will, for people who loathe the idea that multiculturalism is good for everybody. They feel the brand is betraying them. It’s not supporting their values.”

A Cup of Change

To a large extent, the red cup controversy is a red herring. The Christmas holiday is very present in Starbucks shops, where red bags of Christmas blend by the pound are stacked high, gifts cards declare “Merry Christmas,” and mini Christmas trees adorn the cash register area. What is changing is the U.S. population, and the chain is changing in tandem. Starbucks debuted its holiday cup in 1997, and it has gradually become less and less specifically about Christmas. Last year, the cups were also all red, but with a subtle tree and snowflake pattern in the background. In 2013, snowflakes and stars were boldly printed, along with Christmas ornaments. The 2012 cup proffered a winking snowman, but it was possible, if one were looking for symbolism, to interpret his wink as referring to a bit of religious iconography to the right of his bowler: a twinkling star, undoubtedly of Bethlehem.

The evolution of the cup has been a canny move, says Small. “The imagery on the cup over time has been a gradual shift,” she notes. “It’s been difficult to detect, which is a very smart strategy, and you see that with a lot of well-known, iconic brands. The image of Betty Crocker has seemingly stayed the same over time, but every few years she changes just a bit to modernize and stay fresh. If you make a big change all at once, that violates the constancy or image of what the brand is.”

In fact, Starbucks’s shift has been about as steady as America’s changing relationship with religion. Christian Americans are declining as a percentage of the population as the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion grows, according to the Pew Research Center. Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population dropped to 70.6% from 78.4%, according to the Pew survey of 35,000 Americans age 18 and older. During the same period, the number who described themselves as atheists or agnostics grew to 22.8% from 16.1%. Also, non-Christian faiths are growing quickly, though still at relatively low numbers.

Retailers are following. “There seems to be this movement away from a kind of Westernized viewpoint and expanding the viewpoint to be more cognizant of our identity as global citizens,” says Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed. “I think one of the strategies that looks like it is taking hold is this all-inclusive sort of approach, the idea that you are going to articulate whatever people believe, part of which is traditional Christmas.” We’re changing demographically, he notes, so it becomes a basic question: “If I put all my eggs in one promotional basket, is it smart? As a business decision, why would you risk missing the market?” Reed says that chains tailoring messages to regional cultural preference is one possible strategy.

But Christians, and even evangelical Christians, still make up a large part of the market. And, displeased with acceptance of Christmas as a secular holiday, some are figuring out ways to flex their financial muscle. One group, Faith Driven Consumer (FDC), says it speaks for 41 million Christian consumers spending $2 trillion annually, and has developed a scoring system called the Faith Equality Index that rates businesses on how friendly they are to a “biblical world view” — a term FDC founder Chris Stone defines as “a belief that the Bible is the word of God, and that the values that God has shared with us are the values to live by.”

Stone says he modeled the scoring system in part on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, but measuring a company’s policies about hiring Christians, tolerance of Christian views in the workplace and the like. He says that American businesses have made a lot of room for diversity — but often not for Christians. “If you have a religious objection, that has to take a back seat,” he says.

But does that mean corporations that support certain rights — same-sex marriage, for instance — automatically score lower on the Faith Equality Index? Says Stone: “There is a whole list of things in Corinthians 6, of which homosexuality is just one of many not good things. If you want to bring up a biblical world view, in which people’s decisions are called into question, they don’t want anyone questioning their lives. It’s not the gay issue; it’s a whole range of issues.” Chick-fil-A gets 63 points out of a possible 100 on the Faith Equality Index, while Starbucks, perhaps not surprisingly, scores a mere 27.5.

“I think one of the strategies that looks like it is taking hold is this all-inclusive sort of approach, the idea that you are going to articulate whatever people believe, part of which is traditional Christmas.” –Americus Reed

Of the red cup controversy, Daniel Cox, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), says that while “some folks in media are making light of it, the debate really does capture a sense of anxiety among Christians that they are losing their market share as America has come to represent a broader sense of experiences. This rising tide of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism is emblematic of a much larger fear.”

That fear, he says, is discrimination. “For a lot of Evangelicals, it’s less about being refused service or that kind of pernicious discrimination and more of a broader sense that the culture is no longer reflecting your views, being pushed aside in favor of a new cultural pluralism — ads that feature gay families and people of different races and creeds. And that is a shift away from the way these people grew up.”

That was at least some of the sentiment feeding the outcry over Simon Malls displacing traditional Christmas. Says FDC’s Stone: “[Simon Malls was] trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want all of the business of those Christians and they don’t want to alienate anyone. What’s the difference between a glacier and a Christmas tree? The change doesn’t really bother me that much until I ask myself: Why, to what end? They stripped it to strip away the connectivity to Christmas, and if we can strip away Christmas and any relationship with it, and that seems to be their goal, that goal is offensive to me as a faith-driven consumer.”

A 2013 PRRI survey showed that Americans who celebrate Christmas were divided on the question of our seasonal salutation, though “happy holidays” was gaining ground. The phrase was preferred to “Merry Christmas” by 49% of those surveyed, with 43% disagreeing — a flip from preferences three years earlier.

Good-Virtue Points vs. a Good Deal

But Simon Malls’ attempt at a more secular Christmas display violated some basic principles of retail that have nothing to do with religion. For many — religious or not — it flew in the face of nostalgia at a decidedly nostalgic time of year. “Most people tend to remember the past fondly, and I think it puts people in a good mood — and to that degree they may be more willing to buy,” says Barbara E. Kahn, a marketing professor and director of Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center. It’s particularly important today for retailers to consider the consumer experience in light of online competition. “One of the things people are talking about in retail now is how to bring people into the store, and the music and the snow — you don’t get that online. That’s a real shopping experience.”

“One of the things people are talking about in retail now is how to bring people into the store, and the music and the snow — you don’t get that online. That’s a real shopping experience.” –Barbara Kahn

By the same token, companies that are making statements by staying closed on Thanksgiving — or REI, which has trumpeted its decision to close on Black Friday, and Chick-fil-A, which stays closed on Sunday and has supported anti-same-sex-marriage causes — aren’t necessarily winning any good-virtue points with customers. “When a company takes a stance like this to differentiate itself, it can be a powerful thing,” says Reed. “When everyone starts doing this … it starts to lose its power.”

He adds that he advises companies “not to get involved with things that are unrelated to mission. If you are Chick-fil-A, why are you getting involved in this? Just sell the chicken. Unless the person at the top is making the decision that that’s our value system, it can only get in the way. It can only upset some potential segment.”

Kahn says that values such as closing on Thanksgiving are generally more important to employees than to customers. On the other hand, “with social media, it makes it harder and harder for people to maintain ignorance of hypocrisy between ideals and behavior.”

Of course, when the holiday customer and retailer are eager to cut a deal, not a lot can stand in the way. For retailers, it’s easier than ever to send the public the message that they will stay closed on Thanksgiving or even Black Friday — while not necessarily giving up much. “I definitely think it’s lost its mojo,” says Kahn. After all: “Online is 24/7, so you don’t feel tied to a specific day, and specials run all the time.”

And for the customer, principles are all fine and good. “But when push comes to shove, and that’s the only retailer that has something you want,” Kahn points out, “people tend not to worry as much about these issues.”